Ruining nature, exploiting wildlife and intensive farming drive the rise in diseases that, like the novel coronavirus, are passed from animals to humans, United Nations experts said on Monday.
The UN Environment Program (UNEP) and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) released a report in which they identified seven trends responsible for diseases transferred from animals to humans, known as zoonotic. They call on governments to take steps to stop future pandemics.
The seven issues that cause zoonotic diseases are the rising demand for animal protein, extraction of natural resources and urbanization, intensive and unsustainable farming, exploitation of wildlife, increased travel and transportation, food supply changes and climate change.
“The science is clear that if we keep exploiting wildlife and destroying our ecosystems, then we can expect to see a steady stream of these diseases jumping from animals to humans in the years ahead,” said UNEP executive director Inger Andersen.
“Pandemics are devastating to our lives and our economies, and as we have seen over the past months. It is the poorest and the most vulnerable who suffer the most. To prevent future outbreaks, we must become much more deliberate about protecting our natural environment,” Andersen added.
About 60 percent of known infectious diseases in humans and 75 percent of all emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, she said, mainly due to the increased interaction between humans, animals and the environment.
The novel coronavirus, which is most likely to have originated in bats, has infected more than 11 million people and killed over half a million people globally, according to Johns Hopkins University.
But it is just one in a growing number of diseases — including Ebola, MERS, West Nile fever, Zika, SARS and Rift Valley fever — that have jumped from animal hosts into the human population in recent years, said the report.
Two million people die yearly from zoonotic diseases
Around two million people, mostly in developing nations, die from neglected zoonotic diseases every year. These outbreaks not only cause severe illness and deaths, but also result in major economic losses for some of the world’s poorest.
In the last two decades alone, zoonotic diseases have caused economic losses of more than $100 billion. This does not include the cost of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is expected to reach $9 trillion over the next few years, said the report.
Most efforts to control zoonotic diseases have been reactive rather than proactive, say experts. They want governments to invest in public health, farm sustainability, end over-exploitation of wildlife and reduce climate change.